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Monday, May 26, 2014

Animated Autopsy: Transformers Prime

How many franchises from the 1980s have been made or re-made into big budget movies recently? If your answer was "a lot", you'd be right. Nostalgia's twenty-year cycle is taking its toll on our movie theaters and wallets, giving us the G.I. Joe movies, RoboCop's neutered remake, Total Recall 2.0, a new Tron film of all things, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles re-imagining, the list goes on. I would hardly be surprised to see a Street Sharks movie at some point soon.

But there's one franchise that never really went away between the '80s and now. It went through iterations both good and bad, and sold enough toys to keep itself in the public eye. I'm talking, of course, about Transformers. Thanks to Michael Bay and co., the coolness of seeing a truck change into a robot and punch another robot is back, bigger than ever and on the big screen for better or worse.

Varying mileage on the merits of the films aside, the hype around their production and release was naturally enough to have another few TV shows based on the franchise greenlit. Logical, since that is where the franchise began and where most of the best advertizing is. But let's talk about one of those shows in particular: Transformers Prime.

Pictured: Awesome in a Can

Prime was helmed by two of the live-action films' scribes, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who were also responsible for the newer Star Trek films and Cowboys and Aliens, as well as animation veterans Duane Capizzi and Jeff Kline, who worked together on shows like Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles and Men in Black: The Animated Series. The visuals are clearly inspired by the live-action movie "Bayformers", with their more jagged lines and pointed limbs, as opposed to the historical "blocky" look of the franchise.

Before I dive deeper into the show itself, let me discuss some aspects of the Transformers fandom as a whole. Transformers is one of the more rabidly enthusiastic fanbases out there, right alongside Trekkies and Star Wars fans. With Transformers, however, there has been far fewer wholeheartedly embraced media than with most fandoms; even the most rabid of Star Trek fans will agree that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a fantastic movie, just as you would be hard-pressed to find a fan of Star Wars who denounces A New Hope as being a bad film.

Nothing in the Transformers fandom is quite that clear-cut. Well, almost nothing. The original show, now often called Transformers G1, is loved by children of the '80s for is quality voice acting and colorful cast, even though by today's standards the animation is often shoddy and the writing poor; more recent comers to the fandom (myself included) simply do not connect with that series the same way. The various dubbed series' brought over during the late '90s and deep into the '00s are even more divisive, having both defenders and detractors in vocal measure.

The one iteration of the franchise that is almost universally loved, and my personal gateway show into the fandom, is Beast Wars.

Ah the memories
Beast Wars is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, it was a seminal work by the production team to turn a merchandise-based show meant to sell as many toys as possible and turned it into one of the best-written shows of the '90s, and the groundbreaking CG-based animation paved the way for Prime in a direct way, along with numerous other shows. But little else about the former show inspired the latter, or much else of the franchise direction after its conclusion despite fans' wishes and hopes.

Example: a common complaint about some entries in the franchise, the live-action movies especially, is the encroachment of the human characters into a movie or show ostensibly built around transforming robots. The problem, though, isn't with the human characters themselves; every Transformers show has had humans involved in varying degrees of usefulness, right from the start. The character of Sam Witwicky is inspired from a character in the original G1 cartoon. The only show in the franchise to have no humans in speaking roles through its entire run? You guessed it: Beast Wars.

The issue, then, is not whether human characters or other tropes common through the franchise are present, but how they're used. Prime manages to use some of the more commonly complained about elements of the franchise in a refreshingly competent way, with a quality of writing that is almost completely absent from the live-action movies that spawned it.

To follow up on the earlier example, let me introduce you to the main human characters of Prime.

Is this the audition line for Episode VII?
 Meet Raf, Jack and Miko. What are your impressions when you first see them or hear their names? Rafael seems like the prototypical "geek" kid, good with computers, not so much with people, possibly being bullied at school, perhaps even by the other two kids in the picture. Jack looks and sound more like the average teenager, at home on a skateboard and using words like "awesome" a lot. Miko looks more anime-inspired, with a pink stripe in her hair and sassy teenager clothing indicating the sort of scrappy character most shows sink under the weight of.

Well, let's break a few of those presumptions right now. Raf, Jack and Miko begin the show as good friends, and while those presuppositions aren't entirely false in all cases, they don't define any of these character through the show's entire run.
  • Raf is quiet and unassuming, but also brave and not willing to be pushed around or against taking risks, gradually becoming the most valuable and competent member of the human crew due to his ability to interpret and dissect technology, especially related to computer programming.
  • Jack, being old enough to legally drive, is the point man for the relations between Transformers and humans during most missions, and his teenage-inspired drive for a cool motorcycle to help him attract girls doesn't last past the first four or five episodes once the magnitude of what he and his friends stumble upon sinks in. He is the cautious one, and while not cowardly, is the voice of realism and reason.
  • Miko, unfortunately, is the most divisive character of the three. She is an adrenaline junkie who relishes the danger being caught on the front lines of a war between two factions of a species who could crush her at will. Her drive for thrills does turn into a desire to help her new robots friends, but her lack of danger sense causes more trouble than it solves. Her most redeeming factor is that her pure spunk keeps her and the rest of the team going even when things are at their darkest.
Other human characters show up throughout the series, but these three are the focus. And while Miko seems to fit in with her stereotypes (at least at the start of the show) the others tweak them or outright defy them in a lot of ways. And that only becomes more evident as the show continues, because if Prime managed to do one thing right above all else, it's character development.

The humans are not, of course, the only cast members. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee both make the jump from movie-verse to TV screens, with the former even being voiced by the great Peter Cullen in what is one of the greatest ongoing voice rolls of all time, dating all the way back to the G1 show. The other Autobots in the top picture (from left to right), Arcee (a terrific Sumalee Montano), Ratchet (the imitable Jeffrey Combs), Bulkhead (the also imitable Kevin Michael Richardson) and Cliffjumper (the one and only Dwayne Johnson), form Team Prime, a rag-tag group gathered on Earth after a referenced-but-never-seen war that devestated their home of Cybertron.

Already on Earth are Megatron (reprised from the G1 series by the great Frank Welker), Starscream (Steve Blum) and Soundwave, Decepticons out in search for powerful relics of their civilization mysteriously left behind on a planet none of them had ever visited before. As the story continues, more and more characters are added (and removed) from the cast as the stakes get higher and higher, Decepticons coming from all corners of the galaxy to join their leader on Earth, while the Autobots are left scraping whatever they can together to oppose them.

Make no mistake: this show may be rated for children, but it takes its inspiration from the movie-verse seriously. Plots deal with the loss of friends and the PTSD resulting from a centuries-long war, characters are killed off for good with shocking frequency, and the dangers the kids face is brought up very often, especially when one is nearly killed by Megatron himself and spends the better part of three episodes in the hospital. Things are done in this show that are not easily undone or reset by the needs of the status quo, something few kid-based shows are willing to do.

Transformers Prime isn't a perfect show, but it is a pretty good one; the characters are diverse, colorful and developed well over the series' run, the animation is top-notch and the writing, while suffering a few hiccups, is above-average for the most part, and occasionally stellar, especially in the finale for season 1 and through most of season 2. It's definitely worth a watch, especially for Transformers fans, but also for those whom the live-action movies left a bad taste in their mouths. The show has three seasons and a DTV movie that wraps up the story, all currently available on Netflix and DVD/Blu Ray.